Without endorsing his particular picture of the good life, I have always taken delight in the opening pages of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics.  Aristotle begins by remarking that, “Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit,  is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.”  According to Aristotle, we are teleological through and through.  Our action is goal oriented.  I am not now sitting in this chair on my patio because I was blown here by the wind.  No, I am here for the sake of writing.  It is a goal that governs my activity now.  In the next paragraph he continues,

If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the chief good. Will not the knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right?

Aristotle here draws a distinction between what we could call relative ends and absolute ends.  A relative end is something that we do and value for the sake of something else.  For example, cooking is not a valuable activity in and of itself– though I think it is –but is rather valuable for the sake of the meal that it produces, and the meal that it produces is not valuable in and of itself, but is valuable for the nutrients it gives us and, above all, the companionship we enjoy in a proper meal with friends, lovers and family.  Indeed, the telos of the meal, its purpose, its end might not be nutrition at all, but rather the forging and continuance of our relationship with others.  We break bread with others and share our lives together as we eat the meal.  There seems to be something deficient in a meal eaten alone.

On the other hand, absolute ends would be things that are valued for their own sake, rather than for the sake of anything else.  They are not for something else, but valuable for themselves.  The relative ends are done for the sake of these absolute ends.  And these absolute ends, whatever they might be, would be those things that make a life worth living or a life excellent.  Absolute ends would be things like friendship, love, health, beauty, knowledge and a variety of other things.  These are things that we value not because they serve some other function like creating profit or improving society, but because they are intrinsically valuable and are enjoyed for their own sake.  My friendship with my dog Zoe is not valuable because she guards my house or me hunt (I don’t hunt) or because she pulls my sled, but it is valuable in and of itself just as a friendship is valuable in and of itself.  Zoe brings many inconveniences with her.  The money that I must spend on food.  The fact that she wakes me up around four or five in the morning, licking my face or crawling on my back to sleep, so I’ll take her outside.  She sometimes barks at people passing by or beings a crazy dog in play.  Yet these inconveniences are not inconveniences.  They are part of life with my companion; a life that would be deficient without her.

read on!

Likewise, we expend enormous amounts of thought, energy, and wealth on beauty, not because beauty is valuable for anything else, but because it is valuable for its own sake.  Perhaps Goblin National Park (to the right above) is filled with valuable resources like gold and silver, or maybe the rocks could be profitably used as building materials.  However, were we to mine the park we would be doing something unspeakable because the stone formations are not only breathtakingly beautiful, it is also singular and irreplaceable.  Nothing like this exists anywhere else on the planet and perhaps the universe; and as such it is valuable for its own sake.  It is not for anything else.  The world rightfully hissed without outrage when those men toppled some of these stone formations years ago to amuse themselves.  There has to be something wrong with people who do such a thing.  They are, Aristotle would say, in a state of vice, unable to discern what is valuable.  And indeed, this sort of vice seems to have increasingly overtaken the world.  We have become a world where everything is defined by relative ends or values, where everything has been reduced to utility or a use-value, and where absolute ends or values have grown increasingly dim or invisible.  Even in philosophy and theory, both of which should know better, speculation is only treated as valuable if it serves some other end, such as political ends.  Speculation, thought, is not seen as valuable or as an end in itself on the grounds that we are animals that wonder.  No, it must always be for something else.  This is what I call the wasteland, the desert.

The problem, of course, is that while we all desire the good, we don’t know what the good is.  We have many theories of the good and we argue amongst ourselves as to what the good might be, but we’re not clear as to what the good is.  Aristotle says that we’re all aiming at eudaemonia, at happiness or human flourishing or an excellent life or a satisfying life, but we don’t really know what it is or might be (and if Lacan is right, it’s not even possible).  However, here is where things get fascinating.  If it is true that we act for ends, and if the ultimate end that we act for is eudaemonia, then we all have a theory of eudaemonia or the good life that lurks behind our actions.  Yet often this theory is unconscious.  It is there in everything we do, but we seldom reflect upon it for itself.  We take it for granted.  It is like the glasses on may face:  I see through my glasses, but don’t see my glasses.  Most of the time I’m unaware that they’re there.  And this is how it is with our theory of the good life.  It’s there in everything we do, but we’re not reflectively aware that we’re acting and doing through this theory of the good life.  This is the point of Aristotle’s analogy to the archer.  Where the theory of the good life functions unconsciously, it is harder to hit the target as we’re not quite clear as to what the target is.  Where we become reflectively aware of our theory of the good life, we can then ask where these are a) good ends to aim for (do they deliver the flourishing they promise?), b) whether the actions we’re engaged in now are conducive to those ends, and c) whether or not other things we value are consistent with those ends.  For example, Americans pride themselves on their “work ethic”.  A good person, they say, is someone that devotes themselves to work.  However, if it turns out that relationships (love, friendship, and family) are absolute ends or values (I’m not suggesting that they are), then we might quickly see that the work ethic is a vice because it often stands in the way of these relationships.  We should work to live, not live to work; and any system that leads us to live to work is a perversion, under this theory of the good life, of what is of value, not a good.  This would require us to revise not only how we live, but also our legal system and workplace policy; both of which privilege the work ethic over relationships.

When I am introducing my students to Aristotle, I always walk them through this sort of reasoning to make them aware of how everything they are doing aims at eudaemonia.  I ask them why they are there in this classroom.  Usually they say “to get credit”, though sometimes they say “for the sake of knowledge”.  I then ask why they want credit?  They say “to get a degree”.  Why do they want a degree?  “To get a good job.”  Why do they want a good job?  “To get money”, they usually answer (though recently many of them, for the first time in years, have talked about service and helping others, which heartens me tremendously).  There you have it:  a common theory of eudaemonia.  The good life, they are saying, is one where they have the security, freedom, and pleasure afforded by wealth.  We can then explore whether “the good job” hypothesis of relative ends is actually conducive to the things they want out of a good life.  Are these absolute ends of security, freedom, and luxury truly a satisfying life?  And if they are, is this way of acquiring these things conducive to that sort of life?  Perhaps, as Epicurus argued, they actually tend to undermine the happiness that one seeks.  Perhaps there are other values, other ends, that are far more satisfying.

Within the framework of plicology or an ontology of the fold, we can think of ends and values as ways of pleating our selves, our relationship to the world, and our relationship to others.  Values or ends are ontologically peculiar things.  They are operations by which we fold ourselves and our relationship to others and the world.  The ends I adopt are mechanisms of becoming and there’s almost something holographic about them.  They structure time and how I relate to myself and things, bring some things into relief and rendering other things invisible.  They structure what I want to be and become, but also select from the world around me.  As a result, the ends that I adopt in folding myself are not only vectors on what I strive to enact in myself and the world, but also define my vulnerabilities.  I render myself vulnerable to suffering, to despair, and sadness as a result of how I pleat the world.  If we take the example of Forrest Gump, for example– and yes, I know everyone is groaning now –we can see just how this works.  Lieutenant Dan’s ultimate value throughout the first part of the film is honor:  he has a destiny, he says, to die in battle as every one of his other family members had done in the past.  When Forrest saves him and he loses his legs, he loses the ultimate end or value of his life; the meaning of his existence.  He no longer knows how to plead himself and thereby falls into a base or vulgar existence, consisting of both bitterness and base pleasures such as drugs and the prostitutes he spends time with.  It is not until he is able to discover a new method of pleating and he comes to terms with the fact that we cannot control fate that he is able to develop a new method of pleating, a new meaning of life.  In the case of Forrest, the ultimate value is different.  His ultimate value is his relationships with others.  Each decision he makes is for the sake of furthering those relationships.  Thus, as he loses more and more loved ones– his mother, Bubba, Jenny –his life collapses and all he can do is try to run without speaking anymore.  Why he changes after running all this time, why he stops running, is mysterious.

In the case of Jenny, we have something altogether different.  Where Lieutenant Dan represents the temporal dimension of the future and the belief that we can control time and fate, and Forrest represents the dimension of the present (he is a feather on the wind, going where fate takes him and taking each opportunity to its limit:  “life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’ll get), Jenny represents the dimension of the past.  She is caught in a lethal and symptomatic repetition (in the psychoanalytic sense), continuously re-enacting her abuse at the hands of her father, invariably finding abusive relations, unconsciously hoping that this time it won’t happen, and endlessly seeking out love without being able to accept it when it’s there.  As Cecily recently pointed out to me, it is not until she has her child and experiences a pure love, that she’s able to end this lethal repetition and throw stones at the house where she was brought up, becoming capable accepting love from Forrest.  Yet as Forrest remarks inwardly as she collapses crying, there are never enough stones.  Values and ends pleat time and structure how we relate to time.  This, no doubt, is what Sartre had in mind with his idea of radical freedom and our responsibility for all that is in the world.  In our freedom we create ends and thereby pleat the world.  I am therefore responsible for the world that I bring into being through my pleats.  I have defined the field of what I am open to me, of what rises into relief and visibility.  I call the world and a self forth through how I fold myself through ends.  Lieutenant Dan doesn’t suffer because he lost his legs– though that too –but because he lost the destiny that he posited for himself.  His pleats folded his relationship to time, the world, others, and himself, rendering him vulnerable in a particular way.  It is in this sense How, then, should we pleat ourselves?  Perhaps that is the question of ethics.